South Carolina's 'D' answers the bell ... again

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Perhaps the most underappreciated job in the country a year ago was the one turned in by Ellis Johnson and the rest of his South Carolina defensive staff.

Somehow, the Gamecocks managed to finish 13th nationally in total defense despite an SEC-high 38 turnovers (12 more than anybody else in the league) and a running game that ranked dead last in the league.

We were reminded again Thursday night just how good Johnson and his staff have been, not to mention how good this South Carolina defense has a chance to be if the Gamecocks can stay healthy and keep improving.

They were playing without two of their top defensive linemen, Clifton Geathers and Ladi Ajiboye, and starting middle linebacker Rodney Paulk injured his knee in the first half and never returned. The initial diagnosis on Paulk was that he tore his ACL, which is a downer.

But everything else about South Carolina’s defensive performance in its 7-3 season-opening victory over North Carolina State was about as positive as it gets.

If the Gamecocks will just keep from turning the ball over and continue to commit to the running game, this defense is good enough to keep them in just about every game they play.

Senior outside linebacker Eric Norwood is a difference-maker. He had two more sacks Thursday to raise his career total to 24, the most by any active player in the SEC. The Gamecocks finished with six sacks, and the Wolfpack went into the fourth quarter with just 79 yards of total offense and three first downs.

As for all this young talent we’ve been hearing about on South Carolina’s defense, the two biggest defensive plays of the game just happened to come courtesy of freshmen.

The Gamecocks’ only touchdown (the only one of the game, for that matter) came after redshirt freshman defensive end Devin Taylor forced N.C. State’s Toney Williams to fumble on the Wolfpack’s first play from scrimmage. Darian Stewart recovered at the N.C. State 14-yard line, and South Carolina scored four plays later.

And then in the final minutes, true freshman cornerback Stephon Gilmore pried the ball away from Jarvis Williams in the end zone to turn N.C. State away on fourth down.

There’s been a lot of hype about Gilmore, but there’s a reason Steve Spurrier says he has a chance to be one of the best to ever play at South Carolina. He showed why when it counted Thursday.

Just like the Gamecocks showed why it might not be too smart to sleep on their defense this season.